Debates over Wales national team selection policies and the 60-cap rule have raged for a number of years now. It’s one of those omnipresent subjects that manages to be blamed for all failures and praised for all successes.
The current rule has been in place for around six years, replacing the bizarre previous iteration of a selection policy that had more caveats and loopholes than a Manchester City financial fair play submission. It’s a simple one; if you have less than 60 Wales caps you have to play in Wales to be available for Wales.
Many observers mistakenly believe that the rule is primarily in place to strengthen the professional club game, but that has never been the case. While the pro clubs do benefit from having top quality players in their squads they also take up a sizeable amount of the wage bill and are unavailable for large swathes of the season.
Ultimately the rule is mainly in place for the benefit of the national team. It means they get access to their players for 100% of the training camps that they run, can manage their game time and even have a say in what position they are selected for their clubs. It’s all geared towards the success of Team Wales, often at the expense of the pro clubs.
It’s then interesting to see the debate around what is the correct number of caps to place the selection policy at, and to point out at the end of that debate that it doesn’t actually matter without one thing – money.
I totally understand why in the current circumstances the players would want the rule scrapped in it’s entirety. They are set to be offered contract and financial terms that are both below their market value elsewhere, and are fundamentally unfair in terms of adding variable elements based on performance bonuses that will be borderline impossible to achieve.
However, there are cons for the game as a whole whether the rule is scrapped, stays at 60 caps, or, as seems likely, drops to a middle ground of around 25 caps.
Stay at 60 caps and the likelihood is that a number of international players will choose to leave Wales anyway. The honour of playing for your country is one thing, but the money and contract terms on the table from England, and particularly France and Japan, will be too tough to ignore in what is a short career and when they’ve got families to think of.
Scrap the rule entirely and the professional game could seriously struggle. It will be open season for any player in Wales to head over the Bridge or overseas knowing that their performances could lead to international selection, leaving the Welsh pro clubs having to sign lower standard players from this country and trying to attract non-Welsh qualified players with poor contract offers.
Place the selection policy at around 25 caps and the pro clubs will invest significant sums of money into nurturing and developing international players, only to see them leave as soon as they reach that milestone, likely just as they enter the prime of their careers. Welsh clubs essentially become development centres for clubs around the world.
Add in the fact that having a zero cap or 25 cap rule means that the national team is harmed by players not being available for all training sessions, having to return to their clubs outside of Wales if not selected or on fallow weekends, and generally not having their welfare managed to the same level, there’s a lot more downsides overall even though the players are in a better position pay-wise and job security-wise.
When push comes to shove it is the level of investment in the professional game that decides whether a selection policy works or fails. England, Ireland and France are not having these debates over whether it’s right to restrict players to playing in their respective countries to play for their national teams because the players are receiving their market value in wages and have fair contract terms.
If there was a 60-cap rule and Wales players were paid market value and had fair contract terms, along with strong budgets for the pro clubs to build squads around their internationals, then there’d be no issue.
If there was a 25-cap rule and Wales players were paid market value and had fair contract terms, along with strong budgets for the pro clubs to build squads around their internationals and retain the internationals they had developed, then there’d be no issue.
If there was a 0-cap rule and Wales players were paid market value and had fair contract terms, along with strong budgets for the pro clubs to retain players and build squads around their internationals, then there’d be no issue.
So while it is understandable in the circumstances that the players are looking for a decrease in caps required to be selected when playing outside of Wales, for those looking at the situation from a wider point of view the only numbers that matter are the pounds being invested in the professional game by the Welsh Rugby Union.